Their own lockdown: How Swedish Jews are dealing with the country’s lax coronavirus policy


(JTA) — Face masks are a rare sight in Sweden.

That’s because the country has taken one of the least restrictive approaches to the coronavirus pandemic in the world. As most of Europe has been on lockdown, Swedes have been going to school, shopping and gathering in restaurants and bars with minimal restrictions.

Some have praised the lax Swedish policy for lessening the economic toll of the virus, while others point out that it has led to a death toll significantly higher than those of neighboring countries.

Even as life goes on largely as usual, things have changed significantly for members of the country’s small Jewish community. Here are some of the ways.

Their own lockdown

Restaurants and other establishments are remaining open during the pandemic in Stockholm, May 8, 2020. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

The community, which numbers about 15,000 in a country of 10 million, has been treating the situation “like a crisis” since the pandemic first hit, said community leader Aron Verständig.

Most institutions have been closed since the middle of March after the community received information that those who had been diagnosed with the coronavirus had attended services in at least one of Stockholm’s three synagogues.

“Our rabbis said that from a halakhic perspective, you can’t have services if it means risking people’s lives,” said Verständig, who serves both as chairman of Stockholm’s Jewish community and as president of the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities.

Later that month, the community saw the impact of the deadly virus firsthand when it spread to Stockholm’s Jewish nursing home and elsewhere in the community, killing 17 in a short period of time.

Still, local Jews, like many other Swedes, have been largely positive in their views of the government’s response to the pandemic.

“Of course there is a bit of internal criticism in Sweden, but I would say that when I speak with people, both Jews and non-Jews, almost everyone thinks Sweden in large part is doing the right thing,” Verständig said.

Big losses

Aron Verständig, seen here inside the Jewish day school, says the community has been treating the pandemic “like a crisis” since the beginning. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite acting quickly, the community hasn’t escaped harm. Among the 17 deaths in Stockholm’s tight-knit community at the end of March and beginning of April, most were residents of the Jewish nursing home.

The community of about 4,500 was left scrambling to bury the victims. The city’s Jewish burial society, or chevra kadisha, was not large enough to take on so many burials in a short span, and many members of the group were themselves older and at risk.

But that changed after Verständig put out a call for young volunteers.

“A lot of people stepped up and helped out,” he said.

Though the nursing home, which continues to be on lockdown, hasn’t seen any new cases since the beginning of April, the loss hit the community hard — especially as many of the victims were Holocaust survivors.

Verständig believes there were no more than 100 Holocaust survivors in Stockholm left prior to COVID-19. Ten or 11 people died in the nursing home, and most of them were Holocaust survivors.

“There were few Holocaust survivors left, but now we’ve lost a relatively big part of them,” Verständig said.

A synagogue closes for the first time

Rabbi Ute Steyer has been leading services for Stockholm’s Jews on Zoom. (Karl Gabor)

For the first time in its history, Stockholm’s main synagogue is not holding any in-person services. Even during the violence and chaos of World War II, Jews gathered there regularly.

“During the synagogue’s 150 years of existence, we’ve never had to cancel services. It’s never happened,” said Rabbi Ute Steyer said.

Steyer has been organizing services on Zoom, and has been happy to see people who don’t regularly come to synagogue sign on.

“We’re starting to get into some kind of routine,” she said. “There are surprisingly many who are choosing to log on. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Still, she has plenty of challenges to deal with going forward. About 10 bar and bat mitzvahs have been postponed, and Steyer is trying to figure out how the kids will be able to celebrate their coming-of-age ceremonies as the synagogue reopens. Conversions and circumcisions may have to wait until the end of the pandemic. That’s all besides the grief that the tight-knit congregation is feeling.

“Everyone knows everyone. Everyone is related to everyone in some way,” the rabbi said. “So if someone has lost someone due to the coronavirus, everyone immediately knows about that, and who this person was and who his or her family was.”

The country’s only Jewish camp is closed for the summer

Kids do a range of typical camp activities, including boating, at Glämsta. (Courtesy of Glämsta)

Every summer, hundreds of young Scandinavian Jews head out to Glämsta, a 111-year-old summer camp located in Stockholm’s archipelago. They sing, play sports, go sailing and stay up late talking to old friends.

But Glämsta is more than just a summer of fun and games. For many kids who live outside of Stockholm, it is the only time of the year they are surrounded by other young Jews and learn about their heritage.

In April, the Jewish community in Stockholm decided to cancel this year’s sessions due to the pandemic.

“Everyone is heartbroken and thinks it’s very, very sad. Many describe Glämsta as the most important Jewish institution to pass on yiddishkeit from generation to generation,” said camp director David Lejbowicz, who recently received a phone call from a mother who was in tears over the cancellation.

Still, the community won’t be completely without camp this summer. Lejbowicz is organizing a day camp in lieu of the regular sleepaway camp. Though the program will only be open to those residing in Sweden’s capital, more than 90 kids have already registered to attend.

“There’s a new spark [of hope] of hope because now there’s something positive, a positive goal,” he said.

Jewish school is still in session and people are happy about it

Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven speaks during a press briefing on the coronavirus pandemic situation, in Stockholm, Sweden, May 13, 2020. (Pontus Lundahl/TT News Agency /AFP via Getty Images)

Like elementary and middle schools throughout Sweden, Stockholm’s Jewish school is still open. The Hillel School — which goes from nursery school to sixth grade and has nearly 400 students — has nixed large events, implemented student social distancing and is encouraging frequent hand washing, but otherwise is operating mostly as usual.

“The response has been very appreciative,” principal Kim Lichtenstein said. “From students who really don’t want to go to school during summer break or on the weekends, to parents who have been able to continue working, to the staff. Everyone has reacted positively about what we have done, really.”

Still, during a few weeks in the middle of March through the beginning of April, as the coronavirus hit Stockholm’s Jewish community, about half the staff and a third of students were absent. Some were sick or had sick family members, while others were scared to go to school.

“It was very different,” Lichtenstein said. “In some classes, there were three out of 20 students present.”

The city’s only kosher store remains open, but its owner is worried

People walk along a crowded street in Stockholm, April 1, 2020. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

The 200-300 households that keep kosher in Stockholm rely on Kosherian for buying meat and other delicacies. The store, which is housed in the city’s newly built Jewish community center in the trendy Östermalm neighborhood, is also popular among less observant Jews for its small Judaica collection and assortment of Israeli hummus and snacks.

Though the store is typically a place for socializing, things look different now — only one person is allowed to enter the store at a time.

“People usually want to stay and be social and talk. Now we’re trying to get them to shop, pay and leave,” said co-owner Benny Rung, who himself was hospitalized in April with the coronavirus.

Since kosher slaughter is illegal in Sweden, Rung imports all his meat, and he worries that the coronavirus will threaten his supply.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

A Jewish educational institute has gone virtual

Paideia has switched its courses from in-person to online. (Courtesy of Paideia)

Stockholm is home to Paideia — The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. The organization offers a number of programs for adults in Jewish studies, culture, Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as a government-funded general education program with a focus in religion and politics.

The institute decided to go virtual in the middle of March. Though there were initially some technical challenges, teachers and students have adapted in creative ways.

For example, a Jewish folk dance class is meeting virtually, and students can choose to dance along with the instructor or just watch as the instructor demonstrates new dances.

An introduction to Judaism class had a field trip planned to the synagogue, where students would attend Shabbat services and then attend a Friday night dinner. Instead, students watched from their computer as the teacher and her husband made a makeshift Shabbat dinner on a weeknight to demonstrate what it typically looks like.

The virtual classes have been a success with students, said Mina Szpiro, the institute’s education coordinator.

“Many are so happy and grateful that they can still get the intellectual stimulation and that they can continue with the course and continue being social with others,” she said.

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